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March 24, 2017
Resiliency Needed in Times of Stress, Change, Burton Says

Valorie Burton gives DDM seminar at NIH.
Valorie Burton gives DDM seminar at NIH.

Resilient people share common characteristics. They tend to see the big picture, learn from their failures, reach out to others and give back to their community, said Valorie Burton, founder of the Coaching and Positive Psychology Institute.

“Resilience is not just our ability to bounce back from setbacks,” she said at a recent Deputy Director for Management Seminar Series talk in Masur Auditorium. “It’s also the ability to thrive, grow and be effective in the face of adversity, challenge and change.”

When faced with a challenge, resilient people think differently. They exhibit mental toughness and constructively talk to themselves when under pressure.

“That doesn’t mean when stress first hits them that they don’t necessarily fall apart,” Burton explained. “Resilience can look pretty messy. Resilience can start out with a whole lot of yelling and crying and feeling like you’re not going to make it. That’s absolutely okay.”

She argued that resiliency is most needed when people must do more with less, adapt to big changes quickly and meet tight deadlines and high expectations.

“In order to be resilient, it’s critical to understand why you are here,” she said. “If you understand why you’re here, it helps you to answer other questions about what you should be doing—especially when you’re in the midst of a challenge.”

Burton engages with an audience member.
Burton engages with an audience member.

There are several ways to augment resilience. First, you must be able to “picture the possibilities.” To do that, people must understand their purpose, which she likened to a compass—both guide you where you need to go. Everyone, she said, has a unique purpose. Some, for example, bring joy to others or explain complicated information.

Fear, however, can prevent people from moving forward even if they know what they need to do. We need to recognize it’s there and talk through it. “Fear is normal, but it’s not a stop sign,” Burton said.

Resilient people also learn from their failures, which can nudge a person in a new direction. Failure, she noted, doesn’t define anyone’s intelligence, capability or talents. Rather, it’s an opportunity to learn about oneself and do better in the future.

After she graduated from high school, Burton enrolled in the U.S. Air Force Academy. Her first year didn’t go as planned and she was placed on academic probation. She left after one year. Although she failed, “It pushed me in a new direction.” She learned a lot about herself that she wouldn’t have otherwise known.

Resilient people also know when to reach out to others for help. Optimistic people should make an effort to seek out pessimistic people, while pessimistic people should seek out optimistic folks.

Audience members interact at the recent Deputy Director for Management Seminar. Many of the talks in the series include participation by attendees.
Audience members interact at the recent Deputy Director for Management Seminar. Many of the talks in the series include participation by attendees.


Burton said these groups put things in perspective. Optimists don’t worry about events outside of their control; they focus on what they can control and do what they can. Resilient people avoid what she calls “catastrophizing.

“Catastrophizing is when you go from zero to dead in 10 seconds after you’ve discovered something stressful,” she explained. “If you’re a catastrophizer, you typically don’t stop at the first thought.”

An example of catastrophizing is when a boss asks an employee to stop by his or her office in 5 minutes. Some people will irrationally think they are getting fired. From there, thoughts spiral downward—they will lose their house and their children because they have no salary.

Burton advised catastrophizers to be aware of this tendency.

“If we become aware of what we are saying to ourselves, we can be very intentional about shifting our thoughts,” she explained.

Burton warned about “catastrophizing.”
Burton warned about “catastrophizing.”

The most resilient people think accurately, “which means they acknowledge when there is a problem.” Although they recognize problems, they are optimistic about navigating through. For leaders, “optimism is essential,” Burton added.

Additionally, those who are resilient think about how they can give during tough times. “When we’re feeling hopeless, one of the best things we can do is help someone,” she said. Serving others puts things in perspective.

Finally, Burton said resilient folks do things that make them happy, to “cultivate positive emotion.” They plan events to look forward to—whether that’s a long nap or a vacation—and take breaks to recuperate after accomplishing a goal.

“Have something you do. Not because it’s something you perform well at, but simply because it brings you joy,” Burton concluded.

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